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EO 137 266 

SP 010 904 




Corro, Lys 

Inplications of Besearch on Causal Attributions £pr 
Curriculua Developaent. 
Apr 77 

12p«:-Paper presented at the Annual Heeting of the 
Anerican Educational Besearch Association (Hew York, 
Nev York, April 4-8, 1977) 

HF-$0.83 HC-$1.67 Plus Postage. 

Achieve Bent; ^nAttribution Theory; ^Behavioral 
Ob J ect ives ; Classroom Environaent ; Curriculua 
Developaent; Failure Factors; ^Learning Hotivationf 
Performance Factors; ^Psychological Patterns; *Self 
Concept; Self Evaluation; Student At-titudes 


This paper describes recent research on causal 
attribution (ways people construe the events in their lives) and how 
knowledge of this psychological phenomena can be used to aid students 
in developing attributional processes that jrill enhance motivational 
factors and have positive effects on academic achievement. Four 
specific suggestions eire made vith this goal in mind for development 
of a curriculum: (1) Instructional activities should be constructed 
to emphasize the role of effort in successful performance; (2) 
Students should be helped to make accurate attributions by attending 
to potential areas of "miisattribution"; (3) Instructional 
environments should minimize the threat of failure; (4). Students 
should be informed of their progress in instruction as it relates to 
their past performance and the performance of their peers. (JD) 

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Implications of Research on Causal Attributions 
for Curricultm Development 

Lyn Como* 
Stanford University 
School of Education 





This paper was presented as part of a discussion group on "Experimental 
Approaches to Curriculum Research" at the annual xoeeting of the American 
Educational Research Association, New York, New York, April, 1977. 

Implications of Research on Causal Attributions 
for Curriculum Development 

In recent years, psychology has focussed increasingly on cognitive 
processes and their influence on behavior (Bandura, in press; Mischel, 1973). 
One result of this focus is that motivational theories have been reconcep- 
tualized in informational processing terms (Bandura, 1977; in press; Weiner, 
1972). Among the cognitive conceptions of motivation is a theory about 
causal attributions — namely Attribution Theory — which has prompted considerable 
research. Much of this research, fortuitously, has been conducted with 
students in achievement- related situations. The results have rich iiiq>lications 
for educational practice. But theories about c^ttributional processes, or ways 
people construe the events in their lives, are young and complex. Where 
guiding principles for practice are dlscemable, they must be considered 
experimental. Thus researchers have been hesitant to propose specific 
procedures for dealing with attributional processes in the classroom. As a 
consequence, present curriculum practices remain largely inattentive to 
student attributional processes. 

This paper has three aims: (a) to describe a body of recent social 
psychological research — research on causal attributions — and discuss its 
relevance to education, (b) to argue that explicit attention to attributional 
processes in schools requires (at least initially) a systematic and controlled 
approach of the kind best provided by professional curriculum developers, 
and (c) to provide specific suggestions for curriculum development based on 
key research results. It is hoped that application of these techniques in 
early education programs will aid students to develop attributional processes 
that enhance motivational factors and eventually have positive effects on 
academic achievement. 


Attribution Theory; The Promise for Education 
In simple form, the theory of causal attributions as related to 
education postulates the existence of two perceived determinants of 
achievement outcomes: internal attributions (or attributions to the self, 
e.g., when a student says "I did well because I knew the material") and 
external attributions (or attributions to the environment, e.g., when a 
student says "I did well because the test was easy") . The internal 
attributions are further divided into dimensions of "can" ("I have the 
ability") and "try" ("I made an effort") (Heider, 1958) . In general, the 
education-related research of Weiner (1972) has shown the two internal 
dimensions to relate consistently to achievement motivation (as operation- 
alized by Atkinson, 1964). More specific resiilts indicate the following: 

1. When students are given information about their past 
performance, the performance 6f fellow students, and the 
difficulty of the task, they are more likely to make 
"accurate" achievement attributions. 

2. Achievement attributions can be manipulated experimentally. 

3. Individuals vary greatly in the amount and kind of information 
they use to make achievement attributions.* 

4. Persons high in achievement motivation are particularly sensitive 
to Information indicating the Importance of effort and have 
learned to attribute achievement outcomes to effort. 

5. Causal attributions influence the direction, magnitude, and 
persistence of achievement-related behavior. 

For the most part, these results are substantiated by sound methodology, 
the strengths of successive experimentation (Como, 1976), and the related 
findings of other researchers (see Bandura, in piess; Rotter, 1966). But 
what meaning have they for educational practice? li causal attributions 


are strong enough to influence the direction, magnitude, and persistence 
of achievement-related behavior in school children, they should be attended 
to by teachers and parents. Increasing the accuracy of students* achieve- 
ment attributions might also have positive effects on other motivational 
aptitudes, such as self-concept and anxiety level, for example. Alternatively, 
If students are left to make inaccurate or uninformed attributions (as in 
the case of a student who attributes failure to a lack of ability, when 
in fact the test was unfair) low self-confidence or greater anxiety may 
result. Thus Katz (1967) has found evidence that young black children 
frequently fail to learn the value of effort on tasks — a problem that may 
be due to inadequate reinforcement patterns in the home and school (p* 163)* 
As such, the problem should not be limited to black students, but should 
apply to students with less stimulating home and school environments, in 
general. Accordingly, attributional change procedures may be of special 
concern in early education programs for low socio-economic areas. If 
Informed attributions, particularly attributions to effort, can be strengthened 
in children at early stages of development, problems of motivation and 
academic achievement may be lessened later on. 

A further research finding, that causal attributions can be manipulated 
experimentally, suggests the possibility that attributional processes are 
trainable; this in turn suggests that variations across students in informatioR 
they use to make causal attributions should be reducible. If information 
use Is more homogeneous, attributions should be consistently more accurate. 
And finally, if students with low achievement motivation or low self-efficacy 
can be systematically sensitized to the importance of effort, and learn to 
make achievement attributions to effort, it is conceivable that achievement 
motvlation and self-efficacy could increase in these students over time 
a proposition tliat has. been supported to some degree by previous research 
(see Bandura, in press; DeCharms, 1972). 

specific Suggestions for Curriculum Development 

The application of psychological principles to educational practice 
Is a coisplex and sensitive area. Outcomes are always multidimensional, 
and procedures often demand controlled conditions to achieve expected re- 
sults. To trust the initial efforts at training students in attributional 
awareness to parents and teachers, where instructional environments and 
possible outcomes inevitably vary, then, is risky practice. A more 
promising method, at least in the early stages of such an effort, would be 
to incorporate specific attributional change processes into standardized 
Instructional programs. In this context, the proposed processes can be 
applied and evaluated in systematic fashion with representative populations 
of students. The remainder of this paper presents preliminary suggestions 
to ciirriculum developers for Incorporating attributional change techniques 
in systematic instructional programs. 

1, Instructional activities should be constructed to emphasize 
the role of effort in successful performance . 

The research on informational cues for caxisal attributions used 
two methods for emphasizing ability and effort differentially: 
past performance patterns and direct verbal instructions. Trans- 
lated into classroom procedures, these two methods might refer to 
instructional feedback, grading practices, and directions for com^ 
pleting instructional activities. Thus, to emphasize effort in an 
instructional activity, a number of options may be useful: 

. Directions for completing the lesson might include statements for 
students such as "try as hard as you. can," or "think carefiaiy 
before answering," or "you will be evaluated as much by how hard 
you try as by how well you do," 

. Instructional materials might include stories about characters or 
Incidents that illustrate the value of effort, e*g., "the myth of 

Sisyphus," or simplified stories of Don Quixote. - 
Evaluations of student performance might include specific 
comments about how to- Improve by applying concerted effort in 
particular problem areas • 

Students displaying effort in Instructional situations could 
be singled out, reinforced, and asked to share their reasoning 
about their efforts with the whole class. This "modeling**" . 
technique should prove especially effective if students chosen 
as models are diverse In background and other personal charac- 
teristics (Bandura, in press, p, 13). Furthermore, such an 
approach could be developed into comparative discussions of 
Individual students ' "implicit theories" about what makes people 
successful (e.g.. Is Jioamy Carter President because he is 
ambitious, kind, etc.?) • 

Students should be helped to make accurate attributions by 
attending to potential areas of "mis attribution" (Kelley, 1967) . 
Students can be sensitized to their attributions simply by re- 
quests to evaluate their own performance. — The student who mis- 
attributes failure, for example, to a lack of ability can be 
shown that a lack of effort. Instead , was the problem. Cues 
6uch as not reading the material careftilly enough, or at all, 
would Indicate a lack of effort. Similarly, failure may have 
been determined In part by anxiety. When signs of anxiety are 
pinpointed and soothing techniques are applied, the student may 
be able to see more positive results. These techniques could 
be built Into teachers' manuals, especially in activities that 
stand to benefit from Increased effort and concentration. 
When consensus. exi8.ts among curriculum developers that some 
activities are more difficult than others, this information should 

be provided with proEram materials. Knowledge about task 
difficulty can often be used as partial justification for initial 
failure, rather than permitting the failure to reflect back on 
the student's self-worth. - 

Attributions are often made incorrectly when views of authorities 
are accepted uncritically. A student may believe, for example, 
that he is not trying or not able simply because a teacher says so. 
Instructional programs designed to develop critical thinking and 
Increased self -awareness may be useful in minimizing potential 
mis attributions by encouraging questioning and independent thinking* 
Instructional environments should minimize the threat of failure > 
Apart from the usual concern that instruction progress logically and 
conclude with a synthesis, research has shown that when students .are 
encouraged to generate alternative ideas, weigh expected consequences 
and do creative work on their own, the threat of failure is reduced 
and students are more likely to have positive attitudes toward 
academic tasks (DeCharms, 1968, p- 346)- Further, specific self- 
instructions have been found to sustain work persistence in 
academic situations (Meichenbaum and Cameron, 1974) • In both of 
these cases, the reinforcement may be said to occur from within 
the person himself; the focus of the instruction, accordingly, is 
on the individual's self-evaluation of performance, rather than the 
performance itself. As Bandura (in press) has noted, the more ex- 
tensive the situational aids for performance, the greater the 
chance that resiats will be attributed to external factors (p, 21). 
It follows, then, that situational aids should be minimized, or 
systematically reduced, when internal attributions are a goal. 
To accomplish these outcomes, instruction that incorporates 


teacher questions, or questions in text, is favorable • Such 
questions require ^application and evaluation, permitting a . 
range of "correct" answers. Furthermore, when activities 
require the student to work on his own ideas at his own pace, 
and grading is criterion-based, the threat of failure is reduced 
and opportunities to benefit from success are increased. 
• Another technique for improving the learning situation might be 
to provide specific Instructions for the student to repeat to 
himself when anxiety or other distractions arise. For example, 
students can be taught to verbalize calming statements to them- 
selves ("Don't worry. Worrying won't help anything."), or 
statements to aid in resisting temptations leading to inattention 
("I only have ten minutes. _ I can't waste time on any one answer."). 
Agaln^ the result should be a decrease in the fear of failure 
(Meichenbaum and Cameron, 1974). 
4, Students should be informed of their progress in instruction as 

It relates to their past performance, and the performance of their 
peers . 

Both criterionr^referenced and norm-referenced progress informa- 
tion can be important vehicles for increasing accuracy in attri- 
butions, especially if students are able to see results of their 
efforts over time, and their performance in relationship to the 
performance of others as well. Both types of feedback can be 
provided in instructional programs, and, when it is provided in graphic 
form, students will be able to see results over time. 
These four principles and the spceific suggestions within them provide 
a preliminary starting point for the development of accurate, informed 
attributional processes in school children. This, to "restore the instrumental 
value to competencies [the children] possess" (Bandura, in press, p. 28). 


The recoinmended mediiiin for providing such training is systematic 
Instructional material capable of creating fairly standard learning 
environments across a range of subject matter and developmental levels. 
Suggestions derive from psychological research on attributional processes 
as related to achievement outcomes. Explicitly described, the research 
findings have obvious relevance to educational practice. It is unfortunate, 
but not unalterable, that few of these findings have been tested in 
educational settings. The aim of this paper was to create a confluence 
for these two rivers of thought. 




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